Aug

26

Not only did Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville (December 26, 1780—November 28, 1872) defy the era’s deep-seated bias against women in science, she was the very reason the word “scientist” was coined: When reviewing her seminal second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which Somerville wrote at the age of 54, English polymath and Trinity College master William Whewell was so impressed that he thought it rendered the term “men of science” obsolete and warranted a new, more inclusive descriptor to honor Somerville’s contribution to the field.

Reconstructionist Maria Mitchell, herself a pioneer who paved the way for women in science, captured Somerville’s singular genius in a May 1860 article for The Atlantic:

To read mathematical works is an easy task; the formulae can be learned and their meaning apprehended: to read the most profound of them, with such appreciation that one stands side by side with the great minds who originated them, requires a higher order of intellect; and far-reaching indeed is that which, pondering in the study on a few phenomena known by observation, develops the theory of worlds, traces back for ages their history, and sketches the outline of their future destiny.

Somerville came to science by way of the arts, the era’s traditional domain for young girls. When her art teacher made a passing reference to Euclid and his theories of geometry to explain perspective in painting, noting that they also illuminated the foundations of astronomy and physics, young Mary found herself mesmerized by the promise of a science so expansive and dimensional. So she pleaded with her brother’s science tutor to help her learn about Euclid. But her ascent to science was far from smooth — this early initiative was met with adamant resistance by her father, who found mathematics not only unsuitable but also sanity-jeopardizing for his daughter. Somerville recalls in her journals:

My father came home for a short time, and, somehow or other, finding out what I was about, said to my mother, ‘Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There was X., who went raving mad about the longitude!’

To correct young Mary’s intellectual aberrations, her parents put her on a steady diet of illustrated ladies’ journals. But those happened to contain puzzles and logical riddles, many of which required mathematical solutions. It was in them that Mary discovered the curious symbols of algebraic equations and was once again enthralled.

Rather than thwarting her budding crush on mathematics, her parents had inadvertently turned it into a lifelong love.

Even so, however, they were bent on sending their daughter down the traditional path destined for women of the era. When she was twenty-four, Mary was married to her distant cousin, Samuel Grieg — a severe man with little faith in women’s capacities beyond their childbearing ability, who forbad Mary from pursuing her studies.

When Grieg died three years later, he left Somerville with two young children, but also with an inheritance and a freedom that opened a new horizon for learning. She soon began corresponding with the mathematician William Wallace at the University of Edinburgh, who mentored her studies in math and astronomy as she at last indulged her intellectual calling.

In 1832, Somerville married another cousin, Dr. William Somerville — a bright and gentle man who thought the world of her, encouraged her studies, and relentlessly helped her master the physical sciences. After the couple moved to London, along with their four children and the two boys from the previous marriage, Somerville met some of the era’s greatest scientific minds, from legendary astronomer William Herschel to computing pioneer Charles Babbage. It was there she became the first mathematical tutor of reconstructionist Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, thus illustrating the beautiful daisy chain of brilliance that unfolds when the hunger for knowledge is set free from the shackles of stereotypes and cultural norms.

In 1835, Somerville and Caroline Herschel, sister of William Herschel and a trailblazing astronomer in her own right, became the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Above all, however, Somerville embodied the richness of mind and spirit that marks out the true scientist. Maria Mitchell, who had met her in 1858, poignantly observes in her Atlantic essay:

No one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science has not unfitted her for the drawing-room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of the wife and the mother; the mind that has turned to rigid demonstration has not thereby lost its faith in the truths which figures will not prove.

Jul

22

When Mortimer Herbert Morris-Goodall gave his young daughter a stuffed lifelike toy chimp named Jubilee, his wife’s friends were horrified by the plaything and admonished that it would frighten little Jane out of her wits. Instead, it became the spark of fascination to light the inner fire that would make Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) one of history’s greatest primatologists and the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees.

At nineteen, after her mother told her that secretaries could get jobs anywhere in the world, Goodall decided to pursue secretarial training in London. But she remained enchanted by animals — she continued to read countless books about them between her poetry and philosophy coursework, and roamed the Natural History Museum on lunchbreaks. Her cross-disciplinary curiosity also drove her to take a course in journalism, and she found enormous delight in the poetry of Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot. But while her life in London was infinitely stimulating, it was the furthest thing from lavish or even comfortable — she was so desperately short on money, in fact, that in her memoir Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey she describes her usual dinners as consisting of “a quarter of a boiled cabbage (the cheapest vegetable) and an apple, or a Penguin biscuit.”

After graduating, she followed her passion for animals and Africa — the place she wanted to go the most — to a friend’s farm in the Kenyan highlands in 1957. She was mesmerized and determined to stay. Her uncle arranged for a secretarial job with the manager at the Kenyan branch of a British company, but Goodall longed to work with animals. A friend suggested she should try to meet the legendary Kenya-based archeologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey at the Coryndon Museum of Natural History, so she reached out to him. They met at his “large, untidy office, strewn with piles of paper, fossil bones and teeth, stone tools, and all sorts of other things,” and he took her around the museum, asking her all kinds of questions about the various exhibits. Goodall, who had read voraciously about Africa, was able to answer most, and Leaky was impressed that someone without a scientific degree would know so much. So he offered her a job as his personal secretary. Leakey soon sent Goodall to Cambridge to obtain formal scientific education, and she became only the eight person ever to be allowed to pursue a Ph.D. without a previous Bachelor’s degree.

And so began the professional journey of a remarkable pioneer. Goodall spent nearly half a century studying the social and family interactions of chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. The insights from her longitudinal observations have served as fundamental pillars of understanding not only primate behavior, but also animal consciousness at large. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977, dedicated to her relentless advocacy of international wildlife and environmental conservation, and has authored numerous books on primate behavior, animal welfare, and what it means to inhabit our inextricable connectedness to our closest fellow beings.

To support Goodall’s work and its far-reaching legacy, consider contributing a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute.

Jul

08

Astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818 — June 28, 1889) was born the third in a Quaker family of ten children, in an age when parents still considered the physical sciences better-suited for girls than boys. Her formative years, however, coincided with the unfortunate reversal of gender norms that made women in science not only a rarity, but also a discouraged deviation from social standards. She would eventually lament in an 1881 report, “At what time did scientific associations close to women?” Even so, Mitchell went on to become the first recognized female astronomer in America and contributed significantly to the evolution of both astronomy and women’s science education.

In a testament to the fact that equality isn’t merely a “women’s problem” but requires equal investment from all, Mitchell owed her early scientific education to her father’s consistent encouragement and his refusal to treat his daughters as inferior to his sons. William Mitchell was an astronomer himself and a teacher at a small school, which Maria attended as a young girl — the birthplace of her fascination with nature and science. At seventeen, she founded her own school dedicated to teaching girls the essential skills of science and mathematics.

In 1836, Mitchell became a librarian at the Atheneum in her hometown of Nantucket, where she, like Ray Bradbury, would educate herself by reading through the library’s collection every day. Meanwhile, she continued to observe the night sky with her father.

On October 1, 1947, shortly after her 29th birthday, Mitchell discovered the first comet in American science, which went on to be named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” Even more extraordinary than her gender in the historical context of the discovery was that she achieved it with a modest telescope only two inches long, further evidencing her exceptional mastery of astronomy. Mitchell was awarded a prestigious international medal for the discovery and, at only thirty, became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. No other woman would be afforded this invitation for the remainder of Mitchell’s lifetime.

At a time when women were employed by the government primarily as seamstresses, cooks, and other domestic-arts occupations, Mitchell is believed to be the first American woman employed for a non-domestic specialized skill by the federal government. Working for the United States Nautical Almanac as one of only eleven astronomers and mathematicians in that role, she was paid $300 a year for her job as a “computer of Venus” — a mathematically heavy endeavor requiring she synthesize complex calculations into charts that predicted Venus’s position in the sky for years ahead, which sailors all over the world would use for critical celestial navigation.

Mitchell’s reputation soon spilled into the ranks of other influential women and they eventually pooled together, led by legendary publisher Elizabeth Peabody, to help Mitchell use tools on par with her extraordinary scientific drive. Emerson’s United States Magazine ran an editorial urging school girls and women to donate however much they could afford to help buy the beloved astronomer a telescope worthy of her mind. And they did, to a poetic effect — Mitchell was soon the owner of one of the most sophisticated telescopes in the country, a gift from “the women of America.”

An embodiment of the tragically and consistently overlooked fact that science and the humanities need each other, Mitchell was also keenly interested in the social sciences and became the vice president of the American Social Science Association. But her great love remained the cosmos, which she saw not only as scientifically fascinating but also as the height of aesthetic beauty. In a diary entry from February 12, 1855, she marveled:

I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety…. What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars, and astonish the feminine taste by new brilliancy in fashion.

Bespeaking the idea that equality begets equality, Mitchell carried forward her father’s respect for equal dignity in her own convictions, not only in actively championing women’s empowerment and education, but also by becoming deeply invested in the anti-slavery plight and the quest for freedom for all. She even famously refused to wear garments made of cotton grown by Southern slaves, one of the earliest recorded acts of wearable political convictions.

After the Civil War swung open the doors to women’s education, Mitchell was invited to teach astronomy at Vassar, one of the most prestigious newly established colleges helming the higher education revolution, where she’d have an alluring twelve-inch telescope at her disposal. She was the only woman on the faculty. But despite the college’s progressive-by-the-era’s-standards decision to hire Mitchell, she still faced — and tirelessly opposed — the antiquated and often contradictory gender norms of the time: For instance, she taught astronomy to young women, and yet the original college handbook of rules stated that it was forbidden for female students to go outside after dark.

By 1861, Mitchell had reached celebrity status and was one of the most famous women in the world — so much so, Renee Bergland tells us in the altogether excellent Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics, that “people who sat next to her at a meal or glimpsed her across a train platform often wrote to their hometown newspapers to report the sightings.”

But the greatest complement to her scientific brilliance was her enormous kindness and her unrelenting humility. Like fellow reconstructionist Marie Curie, she was unmoved by accolades and preferred, instead, to help cultivate the talents of other budding female scientists — even if it meant overcoming her excruciating shyness in order to teach and serve as a role model. In fact, in what Bergland calls “the scholarly dignity of the quiet Quaker woman in the simple black dress,” Mitchell’s parallels Curie’s famous pragmatic humility. And yet, as Bergland poignantly puts it, “Maria Mitchell crackled and sparkled somehow, even when the rest of [Nantucket] was torpid and sleepy in the sunshine.” One woman, who in her childhood had befriended Mitchell in her librarian capacity, recalled the “warmth and depth of Maria Mitchell’s affectionate nature” and extolled her “whole-souled generosity.”

Mitchell died in 1889 of brain disease, leaving behind an inextinguishable torch of hope for women in science at a time of oppressive darkness. She was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. The Maria Mitchell Association in Nantucket preserves her legacy and houses the Maria Mitchell Observatory.

Jun

17

When she boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride (May 26, 1951 — July 23, 2012) became not only the first American woman in space, but also the nation’s first lesbian astronaut and its youngest astronaut to ever to launch into the cosmos. A lifelong advocate for science education and the author of several science books seeking to inspire kids to reach for the stars, she gave generations of girls and young women affirmation and a promise of belonging in scientific careers.

In 2001, Ride founded Sally Ride Science with the goal of empowering science educators with professional development programs and classroom materials. After news of her death broke in 2012, President Barack Obama told CNN:

Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model… She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools. Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve, and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come.

Ride spent the last three decades of her life with her partner, educator and children’s science writer Tam Elizabeth O’Shaughnessy, but in a tragic exercise in cultural hegemony, certain news outlets chose to remember Ride with a sole photo of her and Steve Hawley, the astronaut to whom she was briefly married in her thirties, kissing. While Ride paved the way for diversity in NASA — and in science — we’re left wondering whether, and hoping that, it does indeed get better.